Frequent power outages leave Treasure Island residents out in the cold

Treasure Island residents who were cut off from heat and electricity for more than 12 hours on Monday say spotty communication by city agencies literally left them in the dark about plans to restore the island’s power.

Making things worse, Monday’s outage wasn’t a one-off. Instead, it was the fifth and longest outage on the island in the past six weeks, confirmed the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission officials. For years, residents have been plagued by perpetual outages, with as many as 22 recorded in 2012.

Power cut out across the entire island at 8:35 a.m. on Monday and was largely restored by 8:25 p.m. according to SFPUC spokesperson Will Reisman, although some residents told the San Francisco Examiner that they actually lost power as early as 6:00 a.m.

Power was still out at Treasure Island’s Stern Grove Brew Company and at a YMCA on Ninth Street as of shortly after 1 p.m. Reisman said the SFPUC was “working on a fix” and expected power to be restored at both locations by 3 p.m. SFPUC officials have yet to pinpoint the cause of the outage, but said it appears to have originated from a cable line that the brewery and gymnasium are served by.

An estimated 1,800 Treasure Island households and some 400 participants in the Department of Labor’s Jobs Corps program were affected by Monday’s outage, according to Reisman, who said the department was “fully staffed” on Monday and faulted aging infrastructure and additional “stress” from recent bouts of heavy rain with the delay in the island’s power restoration.

“It’s a complicated system — the infrastructure there is older than its maximum possible life,” said Reisman, adding that cables on Treasure Island that should be replaced after “25 to 30 years” are “40 to 50 years old.”

The island’s infrastructure — including the power cables — were inherited by the Treasure Island Redevelopment Agency, which took over the former Naval base’s operation from the Navy in 1997.

Reisman said that TIDA is responsible for replacing the cables, while the SFPUC conducts “consistent patrols and inspections” of the cable lines. TIDA did not respond to requests for comment by press time.

The island is slated for development, with up to 8,000 new homes planned in the coming years.

“The plan is once redevelopment happens, all the utilities will be replaced,” said Reisman. “We are working on maintaining infrastructure that is 10 to 20 years past its normal life span.”

In the meantime, however, Treasure Island residents and their supporters are taking to Twitter to air concerns about what they perceive as a lack of communication by responsible agencies, including TIDA and the Department of Emergency Management.

Twitter user Cathy Reisenwitz said Monday that her friend lives on the island and called the recurring outages on Treasure Island “a crisis and SF city officials appear to be ignoring it.”

“Without power, the mostly low-income residents can’t heat their homes, since all of the heat on the island is electric. They also can’t take hot showers or heat food. They’re also in a near communications blackout since IP communications are down and cell service is spotty,” Reisenwitz said in a Tweet. “Temps are expected to drop to 40 degrees tonight on the island and the wind chill will make the apparent temp even lower. These people can’t afford to just go out to eat or get a hotel.”

Another Twitter user posted that he learned from the social networking service Nextdoor that “SF DEM is planning to set up a shelter/warming center on Treasure Island” as a response to the outage. DEM spokesperson Francis Zamora said that warming centers were part of a contingency plan “in the event the SFPUC’s efforts to fix the situation were unsuccessful,” along with the use of the AlertSF system text message system and “voice calls to notify residents of the locations of the warming centers.”

The plan was not implemented because the outage was resolved by Monday night, he said.

But a resident who spoke with the San Francisco Examiner on the condition of anonymity said there was “little to no communication” throughout the outage, apart from “a post on Nextdoor by TIDA and a couple of tweets from SFPUC.”

“I grew up in Florida where hurricane season is a normal thing. I’m used to having long term sustained power outages — but I’m also used to a response to that, especially in a large metropolitan area, you [should be] seeing frontline workers around giving updates,” the man said.

The island is home to a large population of low-income, formerly homeless, veteran and disabled residents. According to the resident, cell phone service is “massively unreliable” on the island, and frequent power outages leave its most vulnerable residents isolated and without means to communicate.

“If 1,800 residents in the Mission or Pac Heights would have lost power for 12 hours, the mayor would have been out there pledging unending support to restore power, but for the low-income residents of Treasure Island, whom this happens to perpetually, there is no response by The City,” the resident said. “No one at City Hall takes the residents of Treasure Island seriously.”

District 6 Supervisor Matt Haney, who oversees Treasure Island, said that he was alerted to the power outage by friends who live there and that his office “was closely in touch with SFPUC asking for updates and pushing them to resolve this immediately.”

“Because of the island’s isolation from The City, it’s not a place that can go without power or transportation for any extended period of time,” Haney said.

“Its very concerning to us when Treasure Island loses power, or frankly when they have other interruption of services,” he added, noting that the only bus line servicing the island also faced an hours-long delay several weeks ago.

Haney said that he has requested data on the frequency of the outages and a plan on “what the SFPUC will do to both prevent outages in the future and improve communication” with residents.

“This is an infrastructure and policy question on how we can do better,” said Haney. “There are a lot of changes coming to Treasure Island and any time we have incidents that affect the residents’ access to crucial services, it creates greater anxiety among the residents over those coming changes.”

Reisman said that the agency has made gains in recent years in reducing the number of power outages on the island, with 22 recorded in 2012 and five in 2018 — but the number of outages tallied in 2019 so far stand to disrupt the downward trend.

He added that TIDA is “in charge of informing residents” of outages, though the agencies support each other in that process.

“We will talk with TIDA and DEM and meet [with them] about getting more robust communication going,” Reisman said.

Zamora, of DEM, said that “The City and County of San Francisco is reviewing how to improve communications to Treasure Island residents during incidents including power outages,” adding that the three agencies “will work together on the review of communications.”

This story has been updated to include comment from the San Francisco Department of Emergency Management.

lwaxmann@sfexaminer.com

Laura Waxmann
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